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National NOW Times >> Fall 2002 >> Article

Senate Gridlock; House Steps Up Reproductive Rights Act

by Jan Erickson, Government Relations Director

Even though Republicans will resume majority control, the Senate will still be closely divided during the 108th Congress. There will be 51 or 52 Republicans and 47 or 48 Democrats (depending on whether Democratic Sen. Mary Landrieu wins 51% of a Louisiana run off vote) along with Independent Jim Jeffords (Vt.) who caucuses with the Democrats.

So the gridlock could continue on key appropriations and controversial economic policy measures. A possible bolt from the party by a moderate Republican would embolden Democrats and perhaps stave off some regressive initiatives, assuming at least one Republican defector.

In the House it is a much different picture. Democrats were set back dramatically by Republican gains that gave them 227 votes to the Democrats' 206 (as of press time) plus one Independent. With the added strength of southern and midwestern conservative Democrats, Republicans can pass nearly any measure the leadership wishes to take up.

The country should expect a continuation of attacks on abortion rights and contraception access, efforts to pass even more tax cuts for the well to do, and weak or deceptive corporate accountability laws. We are also bracing for more rollbacks on civil rights, larger defense budgets, continued hyping of the war on terrorism, and numerous special interest bills to reward their generous donors.

Senate Welfare Bill Keeps Work Hours; Underfunds Child Care

Following the House adoption in June of a harsh, intrusive and poorly funded welfare bill (Personal Responsibility, Work and Family Protection Act of 2002, H.R. 4737) that embraced Bush administration recommendations, the Senate Finance Committee completed a more moderate re-authorization of TANF (Temporary Assistance to Needy Families).

The committee measure allows more flexibility for poor women to improve their education and provide vocational experience, an essential ingredient to escaping poverty. It would keep the same 30-hour work week currently required and expand education options for TANF recipients.

By contrast, the Bush/House bill would require states to have 70 percent of all recipients working 40 hours a week by 2007, necessitating increased after-school child care and leaving little opportunity for poor mothers to gain education and move up the economic ladder.

The child care subsidy, a necessary work support, received a paltry $5.5 billion in the Senate bill (and just $2.2 billion in the House) despite several pledges to increase this to as much as $11.25 billion.

Other areas in which the Senate version is better include: immigrants' children made eligible for benefits; abstinence programs broadened to include comprehensive sexuality information; marriage promotion programs made voluntary and not mandatory; Individual Responsibility Plans that take barriers into account (like domestic violence or physical disabilities); and prior review of full family sanctions (before punishing the entire family when one person is not in compliance).

At press time it was unclear whether the Senate Finance Committee bill would be voted on, or whether current law would be extended. Some states support a simple extension of the current law for three years. The new Republican majority leaves much of our Senate progress in doubt.

Bush Undermines Equal Education Mandate

In a direct assault on equal opportunity, the Bush administration may loosen Title IX's prohibition against sex discrimination by authorizing single sex classes and schools. Supporters — which also include some supposedly liberal members of Congress — claim that girls and boys learn better when separated. There is no reliable data, however, to support that position.

In May, the Department of Education called for comments, presaging changes allowing public funding of sex segregated education. NOW submitted extensive written comments, arguing that such publicly-funded segregation is unconstitutional and noting that in several areas where same sex public schools have operated, the girls' schools have received inferior resources. NOW's comments are available online.

These hearings are part of a wider, long-running campaign to undermine Title IX, and particularly to weaken the mandate for equal expenditures in schools' athletic programs. Opponents charge that men's sports programs have been curtailed because of the "burden" of supporting women's athletics.

Again, the facts show that while a few men's athletic programs were reduced at some colleges and universities (mostly because the schools decided not to reduce their exorbitant football expenditures), others like soccer, baseball and basketball have grown. At the same time, resources to support women's athletic programs continue to lag behind.

This fall, the Bush administration convened a commission to conduct town hall meetings to hear testimony on Title IX and athletics programs, though the testimony has been predictably lopsided.

TAKE ACTION. Write the Department of Education to let them know the importance of sports programs for girls and young women; send email to opportunityinathletics@ed.gov. The commission's report will be presented on Jan. 8 in Washington, D.C.

Will CEDAW Be Ratified?

By a vote of 12 to 7, the Senate Foreign Relations Committee approved on July 30 a resolution urging the United States to ratify the U.N. Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW). The next step is to collect the support of two thirds (67 votes) of the Senate; currently, only 58 Senators are known to support ratification.

The Bush administration previously declared CEDAW as "generally acceptable," although the Justice Department said it was still reviewing the treaty.

The Clinton administration had already attached seven Reservations, Declarations and Understandings (RDUs) to the treaty which assert that the U.S. does not have to change its domestic laws to comply with various provisions of CEDAW. These RDUs make the treaty less meaningful; however, it is unlikely that the full Senate will approve the treaty without them.

Anti Abortion, Anti Contraception Bills Pushed

Earlier in the year, congressional opponents accelerated a legislative agenda they believed would help in the "swing" election districts. An abortion procedures ban (so-called Partial Birth Abortion Ban) passed the House (274-151) on July 24, even though it is clearly unconstitutional due to its vague language and failure to include an exception to protect a woman's health. This is the fifth time that the House has adopted such a ban — each vote happening prior to an election.

The Born Alive Infant Protection Act (H.R. 2175), was passed by both the House and Senate and was signed into law in early August. The bill re-states existing law in defining legal personhood to include "every infant member of the species Homo sapiens who is born alive at any stage of development..."

The House also passed the Abortion Non Discrimination Act (H.R. 4691), which would allow health care providers to withhold reproductive health services if they claim religious objections. A number of laws require publicly supported health care providers to provide a full range of information to clients on reproductive health care services available to them. Abortion and contraception opponents assert that they are "discriminated" against by having to provide that information.

Bush has refused to remove the freeze on the $34 million U.S. contribution to the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) on the phony premise that the agency supports forced abortions in China. Several fact finding missions have concluded that the allegations about coerced abortions are untrue, and Secretary of State Colin Powell testified that UNFPA does "invaluable work" by promoting breast feeding, AIDS prevention and voluntary family planning.

In late September, Bush officially transferred the $34 million to the U.S. Agency for International Development's Child Survival and Health Programs Fund and will make allocations of the money on a country by country basis.

The Senate repealed part of the Bush administration imposed global gag rule. In order to be granted USAID funds, foreign non governmental organizations (NGOs) have had to agree to not engage in discussion, provision of services or counseling concerning abortion — even if they did so using non-U.S. funds.

The recent Senate amendment stipulates that NGOs will be subject to only those conditions that apply to U.S. based organizations for advocacy and lobbying activities in USAID family planning programs. However, the provision may not remain, considering the election results.

Finally, it was reported that U.S. delegates at a U.N. conference of Asian nations in early November refused to reaffirm U.S. government support of a landmark reproductive health rights principle that is part of the 1994 Cairo Conference on Population and Development agreement. One hundred and seventy-nine countries adopted this model agreement. If true, the Bush administration may be laying the groundwork for a complete withdrawal of the United States from all international population assistance, family planning and lifesaving reproductive health programs around the world.

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